Much has been written about leadership, particularly concerning what constitutes a “good” or “effective” leader. However, the topic of why people follow a leader has been relatively neglected. For historical reasons, in the West, there are strong positive connotations associated with being a leader and negative connotations with being a follower. This was brought about by a historical tendency for the powerful, e.g., royalty, the church, the Nazi party, etc., to seize control, and for people who dared to challenge them to suffer. High status individuals have also received, and in many cases continue to receive, a disproportionate reward from society, in the form of prestige and wealth. There is now such a strong cultural assumption that followers are passive subordinates, and less competent than leaders, that many of us are not even aware that it exists. I hope to dispel this assumption because it does not serve us well.
The systems theory explanation for why we follow a leader is as follows. Human organisations are self-maintaining adaptive systems, and subject therefore to the principle of requisite hierarchy. In essence, leaders are a command sub-system that maintains group cohesion and purpose, and that enables us to adapt to a changing environment.
The evolutionary explanation for why we follow a leader is as follows. Tribes which have greater co-ordination, co-operation, and innovative thinking have a greater chance of surviving and prospering than those without these characteristics. The former requires a social structure in the form of leaders and followers. However, human beings are less hierarchical than other primates and tend to shy away from authoritarian leadership. Rather, in a successful tribe, one person with skills, e.g., hunting, or emotional intelligence, that are relevant to the problem to be solved, chooses to lead and the others to follow. This, of course suggests that both leaders and followers have a role in determining what the hierarchy should be. It also suggests that the hierarchy should alter according to circumstances, if the tribe is to be successful. In general systems theory this is known as redundancy of potential command. Providing the interests of both the leader and the followers are aligned, which unfortunately is not always the case, leadership is a process of mutual influence in which leaders and followers work together towards a common goal.
The psychological explanation is as follows. The leader/follower relationship is one of trade and depends on the pressing needs of the two individuals concerned. A follower may follow a leader who provides for his existence, connectedness, or growth needs as a part of the trade. A leader can, for example, offer certainty, which is a growth need. On the other hand, a leader may lack the resources to achieve a particular goal on his own and, thus, may need the support of followers.
In a non-authoritarian regime, there are three types of followers: passive, active, and non-followers. These are not necessarily personality types. People can move from one to another depending on the style of leadership required. Passive followers are content to be obedient; non-followers avoid involvement; but active followers make a constructive contribution to the leadership process. If necessary, the latter can challenge decisions, and work with the leader to devise more effective or appropriate courses of action. Thus, there are feedback loops in which leaders influence followers who, in turn, influence leaders. These loops can be negative, causing behaviours to be extinguished, or positive, causing them to be amplified.
Many people can switch role from follower to leader, and vice versa, but unfortunately, historical beliefs still hamper this. In the past, Western culture has favoured established hierarchies and reward structures. However, society is now so complex that a single individual is incapable of leading in all circumstances. It can be argued that in the modern world, followers are beginning, once more, to select their leaders. Certainly, this is true in democratic politics. However, it is less the case in business.
There are two main ways in which we assess a leader or potential leader:
- System-1 is an automatic system that operates quickly, with little or no effort, and in which emotion, beliefs, and past experience have a part to play. This system is informal and leaders tend to emerge naturally. Unfortunately, when selecting or continuing to follow a leader, we tend to attribute outcomes to the leader rather than to complex processes.
- System-2 is a more formal reasoned response and requires the time, attention, focus, and effort needed for complex mental activities, e.g., calculations.
The relationship between a leader and a follower is, also, of two types:
- distant, such as that between a politician and the electorate, and
- close, such as that between a manager and a worker.
The decision whether to follow a close leader is usually a system-2 inference and based on associating the leader’s behaviour and decisions with results. However, the decision on whether to follow a distant leader is a system-1 inference. Distant leaders tend to articulate ideals and visions and to use “symbolism, mysticism, imaging and fantasy”. Distant followers have little knowledge of his or her actual character and performance and relatively few clues as to what it may be. Followers may, for example, be impressed by the leader’s rhetoric or public life story.
In the case of a distant relationship, the type of leader that a follower selects depends on the following.
- When people face an existential threat, e.g., war or terrorism, the need for safety comes to the fore. Followers will favour a leader perceived as strong, wise, and competent, i.e., an authoritarian, protective, and often right-wing figure. This tendency is cross-cultural. It is thought to originate from our long childhood, during which most of us relied on our parents for safety.
- In circumstances where a non-existential threat is perceived, but the cause is complex and difficult to identify, people from all cultures will become stressed by the situation. They will follow a leader, particularly a charismatic one, who is able to provide an easily understood explanation. Often this explanation is overly simple and incorrect, but it is the need for certainty and the reduction in distress that the follower is seeking. In recent years, such leaders have been described as “populist”.
- Finally, during a period of stability, the need for identity and belonging comes to the fore. Followers will seek a leader who gives meaning to their social identity by acting as a symbol of their culture. Unlike the above, this is a culture specific response, and the characteristics of the chosen leader will differ from one culture to the next.
Clearly, from the above, it is possible for individuals to pursue personal objectives by presenting themselves as a leader of the type that followers seek. Particularly in the case of distant leaders, there is little evidence to confirm that the leader’s objectives are truly aligned with those of the follower, and they may, in fact, be personal but disguised. Improving followers’ skills in choosing leaders, and limiting their willingness to follow, would therefore improve the quality of leadership everywhere, but especially in the political, social, and ideological realms.